The Bearded Bakers putting Palestine culture on the map
The Palestinian city of Nablus might be famous for being the home of knafeh – slices of melted white cheese baked with a topping of kataifi pastry or semolina and then drizzled in fragrant syrup – but a world away in Sydney, two Palestinian-Australian brothers are using the dessert for a good cause.
Enter the Knafeh Bakery. Ameer and Joey El-Issa – popularly known as "The Bearded Bakers" – launched their business in late 2014 with the aim of promoting their family's culture and tackle negative stereotypes.
In the space of five years, the El-Issa brothers and their troupe of white-clad bearded bakers have amassed a huge following on social media.
They have appeared in national newspapers, on TV and launched in Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city after Sydney, in 2016.
They also had an "unbelievable" stint in New York City in 2017 and have also toured in Lebanon.
Housed in an old shipping container-turned-bakery that emulates a roving food truck business model, there's only one item on the menu: knafeh.
But the bakers more than make up for the limited menu, not just through the quality of the dessert but through entertainment as customers are also offered a food theatre experience.
The El-Issa brothers said Knafeh Bakery came about as a result of being overwhelmed by the demand for the dessert served at their family restaurant Shisha Bar.
"We started experimenting with Middle Eastern ingredients and family recipes and one of them was my mum's knafeh," Ameer recalled.
"We put it on the menu, and it became an instant hit. At the time, the influence of social media was kicking off, so there was a lot of social media about this particular dessert.
"All the hype at the restaurant became about the knafeh. We used to have lines up for the door. It got to a stage where it started putting a lot of pressure on the restaurant."
Ameer added that the concept of Knafeh Bakery could best be described as a marriage of two worlds: the El-Issa's brothers' passion for food and people, and design and architecture.
With a background in architecture himself, Ameer said he always had ambitions to pursue something around shipping containers.
|We started experimenting with Middle Eastern ingredients and family recipes and one of them was my mum's knafeh|
"Many years ago through my uni studies, there was a case study where architects were transforming shipping containers into apartments for living," Ameer told The New Arab.
"It struck a chord with me, and I had my heart set on doing something with a container. For many years, every time I saw a container at the back of a truck or at the docks or on TV, I'd go 'you know, I'm going to do something with a shipping container one day'.
"Many years passed, and we fell into the restaurant game and we had the huge demand for this dessert at the restaurant. It was at that point my two worlds collided and I said to myself, 'you know that's what, it's knafeh and shipping containers'. It made no sense, but at the same time it made total sense."
Popping up in different locations every weekend, milk crates – and bonfires for the colder months – are set up in front of the bakery. Customers often stay well after they've finished their knafeh, thanks to the entertainment provided courtesy of The Bearded Bakers.
Arabic music is always playing through a sound system, the bakers break out into dance now and then – especially the traditional dabke – and customers are encouraged to join.
According to Ameer, the entertainment aspect of Knafeh Bakery is part of a well-prepared business strategy driven by customer experiences. Social media is also included in the strategy.
"We knew that if we create an environment where people would share their experience it would become a marketing tool," he explained.
But what about the concept behind The Bearded Bakers?
"Growing up in restaurants and cafes, you know, a lot of people over the years would just come in and want to meet Joey and I," Ameer told The New Arab.
"At the beginning it was flattering, but after a while in the industry it puts a lot of pressure on you. By the time we launched Knafeh Bakery… the idea was to create a brand where we could be there, when we're not there – something tangible that people could see."
Ameer said The Bearded Bakers is now a big part of the business, and it's not just limited to food anymore.
The El-Issa brothers have found themselves working with global brands, such as Lamborghini and Mercedes, and there are several others in the pipeline.
At the time of writing, the brothers were about to begin a collaboration with UNICEF Lebanon, with the aim of inspiring disadvantaged children in the country.
However, finding the right guys to join the attractive, charismatic troupe of The Bearded Bakers was one of the main challenges the El-Issa brothers faced in running the Knafeh Bakery. Ameer said they're strict on who they hire given skill set was not a priority.
"We can teach the team a lot of things, but we can't teach character and personality and charm so, if they carry or possess those qualities, that's definitely something that we look for," he said.
Purist knafeh fans may argue that the dessert offered at Knafeh Bakery is not that. After all, the El-Issa brothers' version is based on their mother's creamier, secret recipe.
|Arabic music is always playing through a sound system, the bakers break out into dance now and then [Instagram]|
|We need to show the world what our culture has got to offer, that there is so much beauty in the Palestinian culture. That there is so much beauty in Middle Eastern culture|
Instead of a stringy, cheesy slice, it's a little paper pot of thick custard-like cheese crowned with a generous shake of crumbs. The knafeh is then baked on-site in the shipping container's oven, where it comes out to be topped with crushed pistachios and syrup.
The result is a crunchy topping and hot oozing centre – a Palestinian twist on the crème brulée. It's still knafeh – and it's delectable – but it's slightly different to that served in Middle Eastern cafes and in Arab homes around the world.
So it's not surprising that the El-Issa brothers were questioned about their decision to bring Knafeh Bakery to Lebanon this year.
"Lebanon for us has been an adventure," Ameer said.
"A lot of people were saying, 'you're coming from Australia to Lebanon, to make knafeh in a country where there's some really good knafeh'.
"People did question it… but we didn't come from Australia to Lebanon to make knafeh – we came to show that the culture of the Middle East, of who we are, is still very strong in Australia."
Looking to the future, Ameer said that while he has ambitions to return Knafeh Bakery to New York, the "next big thing" would be to bring it home to Palestine.
"It's just a matter of time before we will do something in the motherland," he said.
"The timing and the partnership will be very crucial, so we can make the most of the opportunity and the people of Palestine can make the most of our appearance there."
Ameer said that while Knafeh Bakery first started off as a "passion project", no one ever expected it to grow to its current size and calibre. But what he is most proud of is having the opportunity to put Palestinians on the map and show that the culture is "still very much alive".
"Music does play a big part of that, but not just music – also being unique and innovative and creating a successful business," he reflected.
"We need to show the world what our culture has got to offer, that there is so much beauty in the Palestinian culture. That there is so much beauty in Middle Eastern culture.
"It's in the food, it's in the hospitality. It's in the love of people. It's in that passion to entertain and host others. When you come to Knafeh Bakery, it's like we are welcoming you into our home and that's what our culture is all about."
He added: "And you know, we are proud to be to be Palestinian."
Elias Jahshan is an Australian freelance writer and journalist based in London. He is a contributor to the Arab, Australian, Other anthology, out now through Picador.
Follow him on Twitter: @Elias_Jahshan